Fstoppers Interviews Renowned Landscape Photographer Gary Randall

Fstoppers Interviews Renowned Landscape Photographer Gary Randall

If you don't already follow Gary Randall, I don't think it will take you very long at all to understand why you should be following him. I first ran across Randall's work on 500px back in 2012 when I first joined that site and was looking up landscape photographers to follow. He quickly became one of my all-time favorite landscape photographers and I have been inspired by his work time and time again. I feel lucky that I was able to spend well over an hour on the phone chatting with him, getting to know him a little better, and to learn about his approach to photography.

To be quite frank, my conversation with Randall ended up being one of the most positive and enlightening experiences of my life. He is such a positive individual who loves to share his passion for photography with everyone. 

The amount of care and precision that Randall puts into his work is astounding. He has been honing his craft for several decades and his talent is obvious in every image that he creates. He began pursuing his interests in photography at a very young age, beginning when shooting film was his only option. He continued to develop his talents, through the introduction of digital cameras, to our present day where all of his current work is created in digital formats. Photography has been an interest of his for all his life. He got his first camera around the age of six, it was one of the old Brownie Hawkeyes. His parents were very encouraging, they would buy him a roll of 12 exposures about once a month to help him pursue his interests. They didn't have a lot of money, so a roll of 12 exposures of black and white film was all they could afford as it was the cheapest to buy and cheapest to develop.

To this day, Randall takes his years of experience shooting and developing film and channels those skills to produce the incredible photography that he shares on a daily basis. The training and practice he received by shooting film helped him hone skills that allows him to make the absolute most of his digital medium. The patience that he learned before the days of digital cameras, making sure that every exposure counts on a roll of 12, 24, or 36 exposures, is what gets channeled into every calculation he makes when creating his images in present day. With digital cameras anyone can shoot and guess, shoot and guess, until they finally get an image worth keeping. Shooting film forces you to understand how to initially set your camera so you're not wasting exposures. It helped him understand exactly what he was doing with each exposure, because there is very little room for guesswork when shooting film. Guessing, while shooting film, is a very expensive way to operate a camera. For him, starting out by shooting film helped him acquire the patience and skill to make the most out of every single exposure and those techniques have helped him make the most of his digital exposures today.

One of the things that truly impresses me with Randall, something about which I was able to gain more understanding during my conversation with him, is that one of the most important parts about photography in his life is how it creates opportunities for him to give back to other people. For years now, he has been offering photography workshops in some of the most scenic landscapes near where he resides in Oregon. These workshops are just a few of the many ways he enjoys helping other people. He gets to spend time with passionate people, people that enjoy the same things that he does. One of his favorite parts about the workshops that he conducts are the moments when one of the participants has an epiphany, something will click in their head when they're attending the workshop and all of a sudden they start to get it. They start to understand more and that's one of the most satisfying things about the experience for him, when he gets to help somebody accelerate their photography.

Occasionally he'll get asked if he's afraid that he's simply training his own competition. His response is delightfully positive. For him, if for some reason he has something to do with helping somebody become amazing, become the next Ansel Adams, or even more, then they'll always have that in the back of their mind and they'll be grateful for his help getting there and that's just fine with him. Randall is easily one of the most passionate individuals who I've ever had the chance to talk to when it comes to photography. I had a blast listening to his stories about how he has had so many meaningful experiences out enjoying the beauty of nature, either by himself or with others, and how he loves sharing that beauty with the rest of us who get to enjoy his work. 

We ended up talking quite a bit about post-processing photographs and how the styles, trends, and practices have evolved over time. As one who started before the advent of digital cameras, Randall has seen the entire evolution from film cameras being mainstream to the overtake of digital formats. I asked him if he has any sort of standard approaches or practices when it came to processing his digital negatives. His approach to processing is very custom, every image is treated with a lot of care and attention to detail. His rule of thumb is pretty simple, he wants people to understand that his photos are real.

But understanding that an image is real can be confused with thinking an image is fake. When it comes to post-processing his images, he takes a very pragmatic approach to processing the photographs that he makes. He treats Photoshop like he treated his darkroom. It's a tool that helps him bring out the best in every image, plain and simple. His methodology for processing digital images has evolved over time, but it has always retained those basic principles of post-production that he learned from processing images in the darkroom. Back when digital photography first came into being, if you adjusted contrast or bumped your saturation up a little bit, everybody would yell "Photoshop! It's not real!" But from Randall's perspective people's attitudes have been changing quite a bit over time, even in the past 10 years.

He explained to me the importance of processing your images, even if just a little bit, in postproduction. In our conversation, Randall made several comparisons between a darkroom/enlarger setup and Photoshop or Lightroom, how Photoshop and Lightroom are really just digital darkrooms. We discussed the relevancy and importance of postproduction in digital photography and that if you leave the image as is, straight out of the camera, then some camera engineer is the one deciding how the final image looks instead of the photographer. The way he detailed it to me really made sense. He made it pretty clear that if you, the photographer, are happy with how the image looks then really that's all that matters.

Randall simply made the point that if you don't put any work into processing your images at all then the person who designed the mechanics of the camera is the one who ultimately had the bulk of influence when it comes to how the image looks. We talked about how when one shoots on film, they have complete control of the image. Everything from film types, film speeds, exposure settings, developing times, enlarging settings, and other darkroom processing techniques like dodging and burning. With digital formats, a good chunk of those artistic controls are eliminated by the medium. You don't get those extra artistic controls like film types or developing times. The extra processing controls in postproduction software is basically your digital opportunity to take some of that artistic control back into your own hands.

Randall started out processing his images in Adobe Camera Raw, then in Photoshop, and now the bulk of his image processing is done in Lightroom. Occasionally, if an image needs something more advanced processing techniques he'll use Photoshop. But, that being said, for the majority of the time he prefers to do most of his work in Lightroom. He'll go into Photoshop if he's doing an Orton effect at all, if he has to remove anything, or if he has to do any sort of layering or masking. For what he sees in photography today, Lightroom has enough power to do an impressive amount of processing and if you can't do 90 percent of your processing in Lightroom then you might not understand the full capabilities of that program.

But post-processing isn't necessarily the answer to creating good photography. In fact, his advice is pretty far from postproduction techniques and is more about understanding the basics of composition and camera functions. As someone who has spent decades behind the camera and with years of experience leading tours and workshops, Randall's suggestions for a beginning photographer have very little to do with software. He recommends gaining a good understanding of your camera's capabilities and acquiring a solid grasp on good composition. For him, composition is the key to great photography. For anyone just starting, or wanting to start getting into digital photography, he highly recommends shooting raw images and learning how to maximize your camera's potential and then just learn Lightroom.

I think any of us who enjoys the hike and pursuit of that next great landscape image can understand both the joys and pains of visiting the more popular locations around the world. One of the things that stuck out to me during my conversation with Randall was his optimistic approach to creating landscape photographs wherever he goes without worrying about how popular the location itself is. Randall's vision for the future of his own photography just sounds like a lot of fun. His goal is to get his own photography down to the point where it's so artfully and masterfully done that it won't matter what the location is. He doesn't want his imagery to be location dependent so he could go on a hike and find a beautiful scene, which he has done plenty of times before, upload it, and have the image completely melt down the Internet even if it's not an identifiable place.

Honestly, I feel like my short, weekend conversation with Randall was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. For years now, I have found his work to be incredibly inspiring, and to get a glimpse inside to how he approaches his passion for nature in general and for photographing it was a real treat for me. I look forward to seeing his work in the future as he pursues his own goals and finds new landscapes to capture and share with us. He's easily one of the most kind-hearted, generous, and easy-going people I've ever met and I'm glad I was able to chat with him for a little bit and to share my learnings with you fantastic readers. If you too would like to stay in touch with him, you can connect with him here on FstoppersFacebook, Instagram, 500px, and on his website.

Images used with permission from Gary Randall.

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6 Comments

Matthew Saville's picture

Gary Randall sounds like Galen Rowell. Just thought I'd throw that out there. Not a bad thing!

"He treats Photoshop like he treated his darkroom. It's a tool that helps him bring out the best in every image, plain and simple."

Except, it's still not SO simple, unless you are actually open and vocal about your own personal boundaries. From this interview it appears that Gary does not engage in highly manipulative techniques such as "focal length blending" or "time blending", but neither are such real-world-altering techniques explicitly excluded from the realm of possibility.

This is not meant as a knock, just as an observation that I hope more landscape photographers feel more safe being vocal about. In years past, as Gary mentions, photographers would get slammed for even adjusting the contrast of a digital image, or at least highly divisive on the topic of "disclosure versus the artists' prerogative" Now, I believe that it is becoming more acceptable to both disclose, and to inquire, about a photographer's personal rules / boundaries. Which is a very good thing, in this day and age of "fake news" and "alternative truths". The world needs to learn to not take all photographs for granted, to encourage truth and honesty in photography, ..and yet still appreciate "digital artwork" in all its imaginative beauty...

I don't think you can compare photojournalism to landscape art. The point of most art is 'alternative truths'. I get news outlets having zero tolerance for photo manipulation and even Nat Geo limiting the editing. But, for someone creating art to be sold in a gallery (or anywhere else), I don't think they should limit or even disclose what they did to create an image. This is an interesting area that photographers must tread that other artists do not.

Matthew Saville's picture

This is where we disagree, then.

As an artist, yes it is your own prerogative whether or not you disclose your editing standards / boundaries. And nobody is expecting you to describe in great detail every burn & dodge you do, every adjustment slider you ramp way up, etc.

But people *WILL* ask, and if you start doing stuff as ridiculous as "Bella Luna", (ugh) ...then other photographers will KNOW you're full of sh*t when you try to pass it off as an ordinary photograph.

So, if you feel like you don't owe mother nature any sort of "policy of truth" whatsoever as a landscape photographer, (meaning, you have no desire for your work to ever be relevant in the realm of Nat Geo, or conservation-related issues) ...then at least have the guts to not flat-out LIE when someone does ask an astute question about why there are all sorts of impossibilities of physics occurring in your photographs. Because it just makes the photographer look like an idiot to anyone who understands the basic principles of perspective, light, weather, and/or astronomy etc.

Gary Randall's picture

Don Crossland. - I understand artistic licence completely and if, like you say, photography were like painting it wouldn't be an issue but traditionally people expect photos to be real, paintings not so much. If the method of combining a lion into a scene with a child in a photograph isn't disclosed then certain mind's would accept the image as genuine. If it were painted then the same mind would expect it to be fantasized. Therein lies the separation of the two standards. :)

Gary Randall's picture

Hello Matthew Saville.

Thank you sincerely for such an amazing comparison. I can only hope to live up to it. Galen Rowell was, and still is, an inspiration of mine.

I agree with you completely about honesty in photography and manipulation. It's dishonest and just not nice to prey on someone's naivety by passing off graphic artwork as genuine photography, typically for Instagram Likes.

If it's an amazing composite, own it. You're an accomplished artist. Be proud! :)

Thank you again.

Levi Keplar's picture

Great article! Not a landscape photographer but really enjoyed this, both the interview and the images.